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Monday, February 17, 2003
The List: The best 40-somethings

Page 2 staff

MJ turns 40 today, and he plans another retirement at the end of this season. With Jordan, it's hard to know what his basketball future holds, but we wouldn't bet against him hitting the hardwood for another round or two.

If MJ attempts another comeback, he'll certainly have a chance to enter P2's Geezer Hall of Fame, which honors the best athletes over the age of 40. But if he really hangs 'em up for good at the end of this season, he just won't have enough playing time in his golden years to make the list of true geezer greats.

And they are (muted Lawrence Welk drumroll please):

Jerry Rice
Jerry Rice is 40 and still going strong: over 1,000 receiving yards in 2002.

1. Gordie Howe
Howe played until he was 52 years old -- and in his last season, he played in every one of the New England Whalers' 80 games. By then, he was 11 years past his peak -- Howe had his best season when he was 41, in 1968-69, when he racked up 103 points on 44 goals and 59 assists for the Red Wings.

But he wasn't far past his peak. In his first season with the World Hockey Association's Houston Aeros, he won the league MVP award -- at the age of 45. He led the Aeros to two WHA titles. In 1977-78, the season during which Mr. Hockey turned 50, he scored 34 goals and added 62 assists during the regular season for the Whalers, then added another five goals and 10 assists in 14 playoff games.

Howe played 33 seasons, beginning his career in 1947 and not retiring until 1980. One of the all-time greats before he tired of a brief stint in the Red Wings' front office and returned to the ice, Howe took a chance when he unretired. "If I failed badly," Howe said, "people would remember me more for trying to make a stupid comeback at 45 than for all the other things I did in hockey."

He didn't fail.

2. George Blanda
At age 43, in 1970, Blanda, the Raiders' kicker and backup QB, had one of the most remarkable seasons in NFL history and was awarded the Sporting News AFC Player of the Year Award, among other honors. One month:

Oct. 25: With the score tied 7-7 against the Steelers, Blanda came in, threw for three TDs, kicked a figgie, and the Raiders won, 31-14.

Nov. 1: Oakland trailed Kansas City, 17-14. With three seconds left, Blanda kicked the game-tying FG from 48 yards.

Nov. 8: With the Raiders losing to the Browns, 20-13, Blanda replaced starting QB Daryle Lamonica. His 14-yard TD pass tied the game with just over a minute left, and his 52-yard FG won it with three ticks on the clock.

Nov. 15: Blanda entered with four minutes left and the Raiders, pinned down on their own 20, down 19-17 to the Broncos. Eighty yards later, he found Fred Biletnikoff for paydirt and another W.

Nov. 22: Four seconds left. Oakland 17, San Diego 17. Blanda: 16-yard field goal. Raiders win again.

Blanda, who played 26 years in the NFL and retired at 48, enjoyed what most would consider an excellent full career after the age of 40. During his nine geezer years with the Raiders, he was Mr. Clutch in his role as backup QB, and he was one of the game's best placekickers, averaging 96 points per season.

 Jack Nicklaus
Jack Nicklaus won his record sixth Masters in 1986 at the age of 46.

3. Jerry Rice
Rice celebrated his 40th birthday last Oct. 13 by catching seven passes for 133 yards in Oakland's losing effort at St. Louis. So far, as a 40-year-old, he's caught 82 passes (including 14 in the postseason), and he's still going strong. The man's been able to maintain, which you know, if you've watched him through the years, means he's only continuing to exhibit Hall-of-Fame stuff.

4. George Foreman
On Nov. 5, 1994, at the age of 45, Foreman regained the world heavyweight boxing title -- knocking out Michael Moorer, 26, to become boxing's oldest champ. He retired in 1997 with a pro record of 76-5 with 68 KOs.

Foreman had returned to the ring in 1987 after a 10-year absence. In his "second career," he compiled a 31-3 record, winning 17 of 20 bouts after he turned 40. Wrote Page 2's Jason Whitlock just a few months ago, "George Foreman is the only other top-flight athlete [besides Rich Gannon] I can remember who was better late in his career than he was in his prime."

5. Warren Spahn
Just five days after he celebrated his 40th birthday on April 21, 1961, Spahn, pitching for the Milwaukee Braves, no-hit the Giants. "It was so easy, it was pathetic," he said.

A fluke? No. Spahnie won 20 as a 39-year-old in 1960, and his 20th was a no-no. At age 40, he went 21-13, and led the NL with a 3.02 ERA. Tender arm? Not at all. Try 262, 269 and 259 innings pitched at ages 40, 41, 42. Declining ability? No. Spahn went 23-7 with a 2.60 ERA at age 42.

Only Phil Niekro and Jack Quinn have won more games (75) after reaching geezerhood. Stan Musial, tongue firmly in cheek, said the pitcher's longevity would be his undoing: "I don't think Spahn will ever get into the Hall of Fame. He'll never stop playing."

6. Nolan Ryan
Ryan became the oldest pitcher to throw a no-hitter when he blanked the A's 5-0 on July 11, 1990 at 43. The next season, he threw another one.

Good golly, but those are just exclamation points. As a 40-year-old, Ryan could have won the Cy Young Award -- he led the NL in strikeouts and ERA, but because of his 8-16 record, finished fifth in the voting. In his post-40 career, Ryan won 71 games, led the league in strikeouts four times (and finished third in 1991 at the age of 44). Also at 44, his last solid, injury-free season, he recorded a 12-6 record with a fine 2.91 ERA, fifth in the AL.

"Nolan Ryan's never-ending glory is inspiration for the geezers, for those folks of a certain age whose hairlines are ebbing (like Ryan's, bless him) while their waistlines spread," wrote Time's Richard Corliss in 1990. "When the pitcher appears on TV in an Advil commercial and drawls, 'Ah feel ready to go another nahn innin's,' all of middle-aged America cheers him on. What man in his 40s would not like to look in the mirror and find Nolan Ryan?"

George Foreman

7. Jack Nicklaus
The Golden Bear entered geezerhood on Jan. 21, 1980, then celebrated his middle age by winning both the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship that year (adding a fourth-place finish at the British Open for good measure). At 41, he tied for second at the Masters, sixth at the U.S. Open, and fourth at the PGA. At 42, he finished second at the U.S. Open. At 43, he finished second in the PGA, and finished in the top 10 in nine of the 16 events he entered. And Jack wasn't finished.

At 46, he won the Masters, coming from a big pack four strokes behind in the final round -- shooting a 30 on the back nine -- to capture the green jacket for the sixth time.

"Maybe I should say goodbye right now," Nicklaus said. "That would be the smart thing to do. But I'm not that smart. I kept reading that you don't win the Masters at age 46, but I just didn't believe that."

8. John Stockton
A model of consistency (82 games a year in 15 of his 18 seasons), the Jazz star went from an A to an A- game six years ago after knee surgery, but he hasn't budged from A- since. Minutes -- 28 or 29. PPG -- 11 to 13. Assists: 7 or 8. The NBA's all-time assists leader by far, Stockton, like Rice, seems like one of those still active geezers who's just gonna keep going and going and going

Listen to Jason Kidd tell it: "The best player at the point guard is still playing. He's 40 years old in Stockton. We all have to be patient until he retires. He holds the torch. He sets the standards. He still looks like he's 20 years old. He doesn't play the minutes of a 20-year-old. But when he's out on the court, he's very effective. Stockton is the best at what he does."

9. Carlton Fisk
Almost all catchers wear down long before other position players, but Fisk broke the mold. Playing with the White Sox, he caught an average of almost 100 games a season between the ages of 40 and 43, years when most catchers leave the dugout only as managers. In his last full season, in 1991, Fisk, 43, caught 106 games, hit 18 homers and drove in 74 runs, just about matching his 1990 numbers. And in 1990, at 42, he managed to steal seven bases, a decent mark for any catcher of any age.

Fisk broke all kinds of records in his geezer years. He set the mark for most home runs by a catcher in 1990, hitting his 328th and breaking Johnny Bench's record. He got a hit in the 1991 All-Star Game, the oldest player to do so. And no player has hit more homers over the age of 40: Fisk holds that mark, with 72.

10. Al Oerter
In 1956, at age 20, Oerter won his first Olympic gold medal in the discus at the Melbourne Games. In 1968, at Mexico City, he won his fourth straight, becoming the first in Olympic history to win the same event four times. Not a bad career.

But it wasn't over. Oerter returned to competition as he neared 40, preparing to compete in the 1980 Moscow Games -- when he would be 43 years old. We'll never know, because the U.S. boycotted those Olympics and Oerter finished fourth in the essentially meaningless Olympic trials. But just a few months before the Games, he threw the platter 227 feet 11 inches -- 15 feet farther than the toss that gave him a victory in 1968 and three inches beyond any Gold Medal winning toss since.

Also receiving votes:

Phil Niekro, Hoyt Wilhelm, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Rickey Henderson.